Why did this roadside attraction park itself in the Hosier State? The answer lies simply in the fact that Elkhart County is the “RV Capital of the World” with a plethora of manufacturers that produce some 84% of all RVs manufactured in the United States.
The Hall of Fame got its start in 1972 when the publishers of eight national trade magazines agreed to recognize industry leaders. It took another 20 years before a building was constructed and the museum was born. The current 100,000 square foot complex is neatly divided into multiple exhibit spaces, a Hall of Fame wall honoring those who have contributed significantly to the industry, an extensive library complete with copies and back issues of most of the RV related publications available for researchers and visitors to enjoy, and an event center that can accommodate up to 1,000 people.
You enter directly into the gift shop where various items may attract your attention but once the eager and friendly volunteers start telling you about the museum you will suddenly find t-shirts are not as interesting as seeing the world’s smallest Airstream or a creation called the “Automobile Telescope Apartment.” After a quick movie, you are off to the museum's show piece aptly named "RV Founders Hall." Here you step back in time when RVs didn’t have slide-outs and satellite dishes just beds and kerosene lamps. Once in the hall, you begin to dutifully follow the painted serpentine road on the floor (appropriately named the “road back in time”) and get a real feeling of how it would be like to camp in some of these units of yesteryear. With over 50 vintage RV’s to peruse set among mock campsites you will witness first-hand the evolution of the industry.
What better specimen to start off with than the world's oldest surviving RV – a 1913 “Earl Travel Trailer” – that has been lovingly restored to its original glory and showcases the simplicity of early trailers yet the ingenuity, like a dining table that converts to a bed and storage cabinets, both of which are still widely used features in today's smaller units.
We loved that this is an interactive museum and you are encouraged to step inside for a first hand look to admire the creative use of space, sit in the drivers seat, marvel at the creative use of bunk beds, or admire the 1970’s paisley couch that welcomed so many families to relax in their camper.
Founders Hall highlights all the industry's firsts like the first RV toilet, the introduction of the first microwave oven, slide outs, and other features that have transformed the industry into what it is today. Things like kitchens and toilets may seem commonplace in RVs today but they were huge inventions back in their day and played a crucial role in popularizing the industry in the 1960’s. These inventions meant people were staying in their campers longer and traveling farther.
|This 1966 Mustang (by Westward Coach) was one of the first campers to have a "bunkhouse."|
It also included bathing and toilet facilities which revolutionized the industry.
|The 1955 Ranger Tent Trailer was the first all fiberglass trailer and the first to incorporate a "slide-out."|
|The 1968 Jayco Jayhawk Tent Trailer features a crank-up roof system that was created by Lloyd Bontrager|
the founder of Jayco.
|Built in 1988, the Star Streak is one of the most unusual looking RVs. This custom all aluminum|
RV was specifically designed to fit in a garage.
|GMC produced motor homes between 1973 - 1978. This was a gas-powered motor home known for its comfortable|
ride due to the use of airbags - a substantial advancement in its day.
|When you think of mansions, this 1954 Spartan Imperial Mansion may not have come to mind but during|
its day, this was luxury.
After seeing vintage RVs in Founders Hall we headed over to the Go RVing exhibit hall where the latest styles make an appearance. There is everything from pop-ups to massive 5th wheels to a remake of a vintage trailer. Another interesting exhibit in this hall is a 1/24th-scale model of an RV assembly plant that illustrates the construction process of a fifth-wheel from axle to finished product.
After exploring the downstairs and museum's exhibits, make your way upstairs to glimpse the Hall of Fame wall and mingle around the Library. The Hall of Fame honors over 300 industry pioneers and leaders with plaques that explain their accomplishments. For example the plaque of Hal MacPherson reads "Pioneer supplier who developed the first grinder type toilet which allowed the use of toilets and holding tanks in trailers."
The RV/MH Founders Library is a massive repository of RV industry periodicals, manuals, photographs and is the only library dedicated entirely to the archives of the recreational vehicle and manufactured housing industries. This is definitely a library that is really fun to poke around in.
So next time you are traveling along I-80 in Indiana, take a break from driving and stop in the RV/MH Hall of Fame where you can go back over 100 years of RV history. You will be amazed at how far the industry has come.
More details, including photos and descriptions of the museum inventory, can be found online at www.rvmhhalloffame.org.